CONTENT WARNING: mentions of suicide

‘Grace and Danger’ titles John Martyn’s 1980 album, a title said to encapsulate the two elements of his personality – yet I think it more fittingly depicts his relationship with friend and fellow musician Nick Drake. These two musicians of great talent, famous in their own rights and of polar personalities, were friends with one another and had elements of each other within them. 

Music Makes The People: Grace and Danger Playlist 

John Martyn is often pinned as a folk artist, but he rebelled against the musical structures typical of the folk genre. This enabled his music to exist both within ‘folk’ and on the genre’s fringes, even changing the genre from within. His movement and experimentation within this genre is fluid, much like his music: Martyn did not agree with the branding of himself as a ‘folk artist’, and challenged this by always allowing himself the freedom to play songs differently each time, which is visible by listening to or watching any of his live performances. When performing live, he also constantly made changes in time sequences on the spot, meaning any other musicians he played with had to be jazz-trained, rather than folk-trained, in order to keep up. Martyn’s fluidity lies in his voice, too, which he used as an instrument, experimenting with slurring and blurring words and sounds together. 

Nick Drake was raised in a musical family. His mother Molly Drake was a songwriter, and in the documentary about his life, his sister Gabrielle talks about the impact Molly’s musical influence had over Drake. He released his first record, ‘Five Leaves Left’, in 1969, recorded shortly before he dropped out of Cambridge University. Drake’s parents wrote to him in an attempt to persuade him to stay at the university, but he responded saying that the last thing he wanted was a safety net. A fragile man, described as having the shy feeling of something to say, Drake lacked command over his audiences. This ended up sending him home early from his only tour, his lack of stage presence completely contrasting from that of John Martyn. 

Drake and Martyn developed a friendship after being introduced by a mutual friend. Joe Boyd, the producer of ‘Five Leaves Left’, described the pair’s fascination with each other’s differing ways of writing music. He describes Martyn’s “rough edge” of playing guitar compared to Drake’s precisely technical and complicated manner. The pair admired each other’s personality and musical ability: Paul Wheeler, the mutual friend who introduced them, said in this Guardian article that “Nick laughed a lot at John’s perceptive and witty comments”, while “John was impressed by ‘Nick’s cool.’” 

Drake’s background was upper-middle class English, compared to Martyn’s working class Glaswegian upbringing. They were described by other friends as being “poles apart”, yet they loved each other deeply and were involved in each other’s family’s lives, with Nick babysitting for John’s children and joining his family holidays. Friend Bridget St John said that Martyn “might have been outwardly different, but inwardly he and Nick were very, very similar. They both could tap into the really deep beauty in things.” Linda Thompson said that “Nick and John loved one another. It was quite Greek, without the sex.”

Beverly Martyn, John’s wife, as well as other friends, noticed Drake’s worsening mental health, often characterised by him silently staring at nothing for hours on end, or at times becoming uncharacteristically argumentative. Drake was hospitalised and treated with antidepressants, eventually returning to live at home with his parents. Gabrielle Drake said that “Nick was born with a skin too few”, the title of the documentary about the musician’s life. Drake felt as though he had failed at everything he had done, which he said to Martyn in one of their last conversations. He became a “state”, now unable to sing and play at the same time; the change in him was noticeable. 

Song Of The Week: ‘Solid Air’ by John Martyn 

It is clear that Drake’s struggles also affected his friend. The year before Drake’s death, John Martyn released the album ‘Solid Air’. The title track of this album was written for Drake, who had released what became his final album, ‘Pink Moon’, the year before. Wheeler told the Guardian that the day Martyn returned from visiting Nick, “he rang me and sang Solid Air to me over the phone, unaccompanied.” Danny Thompson wonders if “Solid Air was meant as a kick up the bum”, but acknowledges that “as John says in the song, there was a lot going on in Nick’s mind.” Martyn professes his unconditional love for his friend in the song, reassuring him that he will follow him anywhere, even through solid air. Thompson says he has no idea if Drake knew the track was about him, as Martyn was not the kind of person to say this directly, but that “the song allows the listener the freedom to hear how he feels about it.” 

In 1974, Nick Drake overdosed on his prescribed antidepressants, passing away by suicide at the age of 26. Less than a month before his death, he and Martyn had an argument which was not reconciled before Drake’s death. Phil Brown, producer at Island Records, said that “Nick had accused [Martyn] of selling out,” and Martyn’s reaction was to “wipe the floor with him verbally”, leaving him later “haunted” and “destroyed” by the fact that he had never phoned up Drake to apologise before he died. Martyn’s reaction to Drake’s death represents his volatility, as his ex-wife Beverly Martyn said that when he got the news over the phone that his friend had died: “I just remember him laughing, and I remember being totally disturbed at the time.” She said that her ex-husband had multiple different “characters”, and on the instance of learning of his friend’s death, “he adopted the character of a tough guy […] as a defence mechanism to guard his own sensitivity and fear of isolation.” It is apparent that this was absolutely his coping mechanism for a lot of his life. Speaking of this years later, Martyn confessed to laughing, saying that his wife never forgave him. “I don’t think I’ve ever cried for Nicky. It seemed so obvious that it would come.” Perhaps the shock of Drake’s death, combined with his alcoholism and drug abuse, created his emotionally stunted or twisted response. According to his ex wife, all Martyn said was “he did it”, and left the room, not returning home for two days. 

Despite this abnormal initial reaction, Martyn felt a deep love and emotion for Drake. In 2005, Martyn told Graeme Thomson that “Nicky was one of my favourite human beings in the world.” The love he felt is signposted in ‘Solid Air’, particularly watching him play it live. In this 1978 live version, Martyn tells the audience that this song is about a friend of his who had a nervous breakdown. He jokingly pretends to cry, mocking himself, yet when he begins to play we can see the bravado completely drop and he becomes passionate, sensitive and vulnerable, his eyes often closed, showing how much he feels the music. In the video, you can see his chaotic and volatile personality (and drinking habits) but the tenderness he sings with is clear. 

John Martyn died in 2009, aged only 54, due to health effects of his hedonistic, drink-drug-smoke infused lifestyle. In a different way from Drake, Martyn’s death was caused by himself and his own problems. The 2003 documentary ‘John Martyn: Johnny Too Bad’ follows Martyn’s leg amputation operation due to the effects of drugs and alcohol. In 1996, his pancreas burst, and he was told to stop drinking or die. At the time of the documentary, he had several recent alcohol related injuries including a broken toe and dislocated shoulder. He constantly got into bar fights for the sake of it. In 2002, he had a head-on collision with a cow while driving, killing the cow. Depressing to watch, Martyn sits on his sofa, fat and drunk, slurring his words. Beverly Martyn tells that all the good qualities of her ex-husband were lost to his alcoholism. She says that it doesn’t matter if you play the blues and make everyone cry, it’s what you do as a person that matters the most. Indeed, it is confusing to understand the sensitive and beautiful lyrics and voice and angry, nasty man as the same person. I suppose this reflects the complicated nature of mental illness and alcoholism. 

In this piece I just wanted to talk about, not attempt to solve, the complexities of mental illness and the different ways mental health problems can manifest and I think the two musicians demonstrate two sides of this very clearly. John Martyn was dangerous and Nick Drake was graceful. But they both had elements of each other within them, and their struggles certainly affected one another.